As CEO of Success Leaders, Rochelle Cooper empowers high-potential female leaders to progress from mid-level to executive positions.
Women and men enter the workforce in about equal numbers, but women’s representation drops dramatically in middle management and senior levels. Research by Catalyst found that women in S&P 500 companies represent 36.5% of mid-level roles and only 26.5% of executive and senior roles.
Why is that?
After running women’s leadership programs for over 3,500 women, I’ve seen that there are a number of reasons why women are passed up for promotions. But I have also seen many mid-level women hold themselves back. Employing the following five strategies can help many of them get noticed, get promoted and/or get roles with greater influence and responsibility:
1. Communicate your vision. Taking the time to think about where you see yourself going and sharing this vision with others is critical. If seniors in power do not know your goals, they might not offer the opportunities you think you deserve. Top positions could pass right by and go instead to those who do express their interest.
For instance, I observed an executive who wanted to give his female report a higher-level role, but when he spoke to his boss, they asked, “Do we know that she wants it? Has she asked for it?” In the end, the woman missed out on the terrific opportunity because management had no knowledge of her interest, but they did know about the interests of others.
2. Gain visibility and leverage. Relationship building and the art of influence are key skills needed for more executive levels. I’ve observed that women often excel at building relationships, but many limit themselves to communicating mainly with people at their level, which causes them to miss out on a network of senior connections. It is important to think about this: Who is in your network? Do you have sponsors or mentors? Who knows about your value proposition? Who needs to know more? Identifying key stakeholders and creating a communication plan is important.
I have seen this strategy dramatically improve women’s positions. For example, a female mid-level leader I worked with wanted a little more responsibility, but there was no opportunity in her area of the organization. So, we created a stakeholder plan that included key individuals who were important for her to connect with. By meeting and sharing her interests and value with these planned stakeholders, when an opportunity came about six months later, they thought of her, which resulted in a promotion two levels above her role. She would never have been given this opportunity or been on their radar if she had not gone through this stakeholder exercise.
3. Advocate for yourself. Women are often great advocates for their teams, but not always for themselves. They pride themselves on creating high-quality work and hope to get recognized by letting their work speak for itself. This strategy can be effective up to mid-level positions, but to be known and talked about in talent review sessions, it is important for a broader group of senior leaders to know your contributions and value. Communicating and informing others of what you are doing and asking for others’ thoughts, ideas and buy-in can make a huge difference. While some might find this uncomfortable, it’s important to shift the image to a mindset of communication and informing others, rather than tooting your horn.
Some tips on how to go about this include: Tying your contributions or team successes to the goals of others, contributing in a variety of forums and helping senior leaders understand how you and your teams are helping achieve company goals.
4. Think strategically. Being a reliable, terrific executor only gets you so far up the corporate ladder. To progress to the next level, you also need to show that you can delegate day-to-day details to your team and focus on strategic leadership and the longer-term view instead. Many women I work with struggle with only focusing on putting out daily fires, rather than exercising their ability to think strategically.
Standing out as an executive leader starts with blocking out weekly time in your calendar to think strategically. Before meetings, look at the meeting agenda and prepare a few thoughts to share in the meeting. Find ways to share big-picture, forward-thinking thoughts regarding the future. Engage in discussions beyond your areas of expertise, and provide insights for your leadership teams that can be useful to all.
5. Have courage. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is not easy. It’s very common to feel unprepared for a new assignment or role if you aren’t 100% sure you can handle it. Those who experience this feeling of hesitation will be less likely to take a risk, so you’ll need to transform hesitation into courage.
Start by looking around and asking “What’s the norm?,” “How competent are my peers, really?” or “What if my peers are only 60% competent in a certain area?” If that’s the case, then your 80% of competency is enough to take on that challenge and try something different.
If this approach still feels daunting, ask leadership for feedback to learn about what is going well and what you can do more or less of. Getting that feedback is super helpful in learning why management believes you are talented and giving you the confidence to take a risk. Consider these questions to flex outside your comfort zone:
1. What projects are you involved in?
2. Do you stretch outside your main responsibilities or your management line?
3. Do you lead any strategic initiatives?
4. What can you do to spread your wings and be seen outside your day-to-day environment?
My mid-level women clients are senior leaders in the making. With vision, visibility, advocacy, strategic thinking and courage, they are on their way toward achieving the responsibilities and rewards they desire. By following these steps, I have found that many achieve their goals, and you can, too.